Recreational passes for seniors will cost more
But here's what you get
August 1, 2017
Nearly 331 million people set foot inside a national park last year, thanks in part to the agency's 100th birthday and a societal push to spend more time in the great outdoors. America's public lands may be the best idea our government ever had, but they are now in need of financial support to keep up their natural beauty and a level of access expected by an ever-growing number of visitors.
In 2016, Congress passed Centennial Legislation P.L. 114-289, giving public land agencies authority to increase funds through a variety of methods, the most visible of which being admission fees to the more than 2,000 recreational sites around the United States. An endowment fund was established to preserve America's public lands for future visitors, and current public lands will reap benefits of admission and pass fees to support the increase of use.
Seniors have long been beneficiaries of federal public land benefits, especially within the realm of outdoor recreation. The popular "America the Beautiful - The National Park and Federal Recreational Lands Senior Pass" was free to anyone 62 or older prior to 1994, when Congress authorized its first jump in price, to $10 for a lifetime pass. On August 28, 2017, that will change, when a massive increase in cost will mean senior citizens wanting lifetime access to national parks and other public lands within the United States will need to pay significantly more.
Public lands offices and the USGS website (site of online purchasing of the Senior Pass) are hopping as seniors line up to purchase the $10 pass before the cutoff date, when the cost rises to $80.
But is the increase truly an attempt to gouge seniors? Not necessarily when you crunch the numbers a bit, says Rebecca Talbott of the National Park Service's Alaska headquarters in Anchorage.
"People may want to know that the pass provides access for a lifetime to more than 2,000 public lands sites, not just national parks," she said. This means day use fees, admission to visitor centers, and discounts on some recreational activities across the United States, excluding campgrounds. Six public land agencies are utilized within the America the Beautiful pass system: National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Department of Fish and Wildlife, Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
Even better news? "Most of our sites do not charge fees to begin with," says Talbott, noting that only 118 of the 417 National Park Service sites charge admission. ( https://www.nps.gov/planyourvisit/fee-free-parks-state.htm )
Not everyone is convinced that an $80 pass for life is still a good deal, however. Roy Neese, a former Alaska resident who now lives in New Mexico, felt a sense of accomplishment when he reached age 62, and thinks the $10 pass should reflect a lifetime of hard work.
"I'm not sure I was ever so excited for a birthday - it was a long wait!" he said. "I got to 62, I earned that $10 pass, and I can take family and friends along with as we explore."
Whether you support the price increase or not, it's happening on August 28, 2017, just a few weeks from now, so public lands users should be aware of the change. Here's what you need to know:
U.S. citizens or permanent residents age 62 and older are eligible for the pass, and ID is required at the time of purchase. An individual pass costs $80, so a couple that consistently travels together may want to consider purchasing only one, since up to three additional adults can receive "companion admission."
A $20 annual Senior Pass will be available with a cap of $80, equal to a lifetime pass, so hang on to those receipts.
Passes may be purchased at any federal recreational site in the United States (find a complete list here: https://store.usgs.gov/sites/default/files/PassIssuanceList.pdf). In Alaska, visitors may find it easiest to purchase passes at Alaska Public Lands Information Centers in Fairbanks, Anchorage, Tok or Ketchikan (www.alaskacenters.gov). A pass may also be purchased online via the United States Geological Survey (USGS) https://store.usgs.gov/senior-pass. Buyers should be aware, however, that there is a current 12-week wait for passes to arrive via mail. The $10 fee will be processed if purchased by August 28, 2017. Thus, it is recommended that visitors purchase passes in person at the first public land facility they visit.
Erin Kirkland is a freelance travel writer based in Anchorage.